Making decisions in times of uncertainty: how about practicing retro-foresight?
By Thomas Gauthier, Professor in Strategy
For the past few days if not weeks, many are indulging in “retro-foresight” analyses with a view to finding traces of “successful” predictions, in past foresight exercises, of the pandemic we are dealing with today.
According to the economist Michel Godet, foresight is the art of “shedding light on current action in view of possible and desirable futures”. The use of the plural form — desirable futures — clearly indicates that foresight is not intended to issue any prediction whatsoever, but rather to explore changes, if not disruptions, which might transform business environments, or those of public administrations etc.
Thereupon, it would be useless trying to go back and assess the quality of previous foresight analyses in the light of their predictive power, since they are based on the very hypothesis, quite recent actually in the history of mankind, that the future cannot be predicted.
It is nevertheless quite tempting, even for retro-foresight practitioners themselves, to look for fragments of the future in history, which would contain traces of the unprecedented situation we are currently experiencing.
The CIA revealed a fragment of the future
Our investigations quickly led us to unearth the Sixth report issued by the US National Intelligence Council, published in 2017 in French (Equateurs editions) under the title Le monde en 2035 vu par la CIA : Le paradoxe du progrès.
The United States National Intelligence Council was created in 1979 in order to feed the National Director of US intelligence generous portions of reports and analyses on the world’s possible futures. For each newly elected American president, the Council would leave in the oval office a foresight report on the world to come, based on a titanic research work including view points from academics, scientists, philosophers, or even corporate leaders.
Surprisingly enough, this prospective report was made public when the international intelligence community is rather partial to well-kept secrets. Even more surprising, the Director of the National Intelligence Council stated right from the start in this report that he intended to encourage thought and dialogue, because even the US intelligence community could not provide definitive answers to what our future will be like.
In The World in 2035 according to the CIA, nine megatrends were identified, meticulously studied, and mobilized to build three future scenarios.
- The first scenario called “Islands” is focused on reactions and transformations of States addressing the various tensions induced by several major economic and social changes.
- The second scenario, “orbits”, is exploring games of power and influence between great countries.
- Eventually, the third scenario, “communities”, is an invitation to imagine the decline of national governments in favor of local collectivities and private organizations, as the new power actors of governing.
Risky predictions or fruitful speculations?
In the first scenario, most consider that the “combination of [several] events led to a more defensive, segmented world as anxious states sought to metaphorically and physically “wall” themselves off from external challenges, becoming “islands” in a sea of volatility.”
Among such events, the following is to be noted:
“The global pandemic of 2023 (sic) dramatically reduced global travel in an effort to contain the spread of the disease, contributing to the slowing of global trade and decreased productivity.”
Any conspirator in the making reading these few lines will surely come to the conclusion that the CIA knew and that in truth, it might be the CIA itself who is indeed at the origin of the pandemic which we are fighting today!
On the other hand, retro-foresight practitioners will be all the more curious and shall enthusiastically investigate systemic relations between the lines of force and events imagined by the authors:
- Pandemic risks
- Climate change
- Rising inequalities
- Booming artificial intelligence
- New business models
- Chronic weakness of economic growth
- Security and identity withdrawal etc.
Far more than just a risky, useless if not petrifying prediction, “the global pandemic of 2023” is for retro-foresight practitioners a fruitful speculation. As an essential component of an unprecedented possible future, it contributes to building a new watchtower casting a new perspective on the present, a source of new trails for decisions and actions.
True, at the end of the day, if the fragments of the future retro-foresight practitioners uncover, trigger in us nothing but suspicion or admiration in face of the alleged power of past oracles, they are no use to us. If on the contrary, we see in each of these fragments of the future a real tool of investigation and transformation of reality, then the retro-foresight approach will inevitably be useful, especially as uncertainty is currently at its peak.
Perceiving and making sense
In an uncertain, complex and unstable world, people, associations, organizations and States, must constantly engage in the double exercise of perception and sensemaking (aiming at explaining the making of sense), while trying to influence their environment through their decisions and actions.
- Perceiving is being alert, seeking and welcoming benevolently new weak signals, new “facts pointing at the future”, at times reassuring, at others disturbing, but always useful.
- Sensemaking is trying to gather up what is scattered, prototyping and then testing new representations of the world, as fundamental cognitive tools for those attempting to grasp and shape their environment.
Like many other fragments of futures which may be unearthed by the excavations of retro-foresight practitioners, The World in 2035 according to the CIA may be understood and used as a perception and sensemaking tool serving action in times of uncertainty. Quite the opposite, it would be unsafe to regard it as the official sheet of music of the future, merely to be played.
Thomas Gauthier is a visiting professor at emlyon business school where he teaches strategic foresight. His research interests lie in the contribution of strategic foresight to organisational strategy and decision-making in a context of digital transformation.
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